So unlike anything in Florida, this section of the Suwannee offers so much more than just mere whitewater
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 10:24 p.m.
Mirror-smooth blackwater suddenly careens down a mile-long stretch of rapids. Water courses over the river's moss-covered rocky outcroppings, stirring the tanin-stained water into a frothy brew and creating a din that can be heard more than a mile away. When the water level is high, these rapids earn a Class III whitewater classification.
Ididaride 2004 is today
These raging conditions may be the last thing you'd expect in Florida. But this is the Big Shoals portion of the Suwannee River that flows near White Springs, which is less than 60 miles from Gainesville.
Thanks to improvements by a host of state agencies, when the water level is right, hikers, bikers and outdoor enthusiasts alike can experience Florida's only stretch of Class III whitewater.
"Since our last major drought, the last five years for this area has been like the last frontier in Florida," Big Shoals Public Use Coordinator Edwin McCook said. "And our main goal is protecting this resource in every way."
McCook has been influential in tourism and environmental protection in Florida for years. He has worked with campaigns like "Original Florida" and "Visit Florida," and at Big Shoals he strives for a balance between promoting tourism and safeguarding the lands around Big Shoals.
"As a guide for people who come to this area, I have to set an example," McCook said. "I won't even toss an apple core or banana peel on the trails because no native species have any use for them except bees."
The area around Big Shoals is mostly free of human pollution, although purists well remember the time when - prior to the development of the preserve - the shoals were accessible only to those with a four-wheel drive vehicle who knew which backroads to meander.
As a visitor, you might encounter a few enthusiastic kayakers, canoers or hikers, but for the most part the area seems like deserted and uncharted territory where kiosks with trail information "magically appear."
The park is a 3,782-acre land preserve packed with hickories, laurel oaks and, of course, the beautiful Suwannee River.
The network of hiking trails and bike paths provides visitors trails that stretch for miles. Or you might try the walk from Big Shoals to its less rugged sister, Little Shoals, which is roughly five miles downstream.
All trails are color coded as intermediate or challenging paths, and the kiosks list the mileage for your trail of choice.
You might see deer, otter, beavers, gopher tortoises or turkeys on your expedition, and you will certainly encounter golden orb weavers (a.k.a. banana spiders) and possibly snakes, McCook said.
And aside from the animal life, dense oaks, saw palmettos, tall cypress and sandy beaches make the landscape come alive. And the steep, sandy banks and rugged cliffs that hang over the Suwannee make you feel you're hiking somewhere other than Florida.
Most impressive of all, of course, are the rapids of Big Shoals, and they alone are worth the trip. From the Godwin Bridge parking area, the kiosk instructs you to follow yellow blazes on the trail into the nearby oaks and pines.
The rumble of the rapids are distant and faint at first, and as you keep winding and turning on the narrow trail, the sound is deadlocked in position but amplified with every step.
You begin to realize the rapids are close when the air thickens and soaks the surroundings with a cool mist that carries far from the river banks. Reaching the end of the mile hike, the site emerges quickly.
You get a sweeping view of the river bluff below. The amber-colored water turns foamy white as it churns over the limestone rocks and rushes past the shoals.
Across the river, a sign reads "portage shoals or pay costs," and McCook said inexperienced kayakers would be ill-advised to attempt a ride over Big Shoals.
"This is a beautiful area, but the reality is that someone could get hurt, so you have to use your best judgment," McCook said.
If you don't feel like taming the shoals, the entire area offers enough excitement to fill an entire day.
"The most popular activity has to be the bike trails," McCook said.
According to the White Springs Web site, there are more than 70 miles of bike trails in the Big Shoals State Park, and the Suwannee River Bicycling Association provides bicycle access on the country roads of White Springs and the surrounding region.
The historic town of White Springs has enough Victorian-style homes, folk art and antique shops to make the curious visitor wonder just how much this town has changed since the era of riverboats on the Suwannee.
As for the trailblazers, McCook said the water level remains at "a good low level" and that this cool weather is perfect for a trip to Big Shoals. In the winter, bugs shouldn't damper a Big Shoals getaway.
"The bugs are not bad, but precautions should be taken," McCook said.
Also in White Springs is the Stephen Foster State Folk Cultural Center, where groups can reserve campsites or arrange school field trips.
The center features Florida history information and memorabilia pertaining to Stephen Foster's contributions to American song-writing in the 1850s and, of course, his song "Old Folks At Home," which most people know as "Way Down Upon the Suwannnee River."
Valinda Subic, park manager at Stephen Foster Folk Center, expects the center to be even more popular by summer because work has begun on cabins, allowing overnight stays indoors.
"By August we anticipate our five brand-new cabins will be available, so that is an exciting addition," Subic said.
The cabins will be in addition to the center's 45 oak-shaded campsites and ample space for RVs.
The park regularly hosts local events, and craft-show buffs and folk-music lovers have several weekends especially tailored to them.
Information about the Culture Center and its directions are available on the Florida State Parks Web site, www.floridastateparks.org or by telephone at (386) 397-2733. The Big Shoals State Park information is available at www.whitesprings.org or by telephone at (386) 362-1001.
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